Broken Teamsters lease puts spotlight on Rahm Emanuel ally John Coli

Dan Mihalopoulos
Chicago Sun Times
12, 2013

Barely a year into a 15-year deal, a union representing more than 12,000 government employees in the Chicago area broke the lease on its headquarters in Des Plaines and moved to new quarters in Park Ridge.

Teamsters Local 700's actions have prompted a lawsuit against the union by its old landlords, who are claiming damages "in the millions of dollars."

But the move gave John Coli, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's biggest ally in organized labor, plenty of reason to smile.

Local 700's new home: an office building that just weeks earlier had been bought by the pension fund for another arm of the Teamsters, Local 727, long headed by Coli. He was an early, outspoken and generous supporter of Emanuel's 2011 campaign for mayor, even as other union leaders opposed Emanuel or watched the race from the sidelines.

Coli's sister, Susan Fosco, is property manager for the office building at 1300 W. Higgins Rd. in Park Ridge, a job she landed a few months after a company owned by the Local 727 pension plan bought the building, U.S. Department of Labor records show.

The pension plan — which is administered by Coli's brother William Coli — paid $7.4 million to buy the Park Ridge property in February 2010. At the time, a spokesman for Coli said the office building would become a new, suburban version of the "Teamsters City" office complex on Chicago's West Side.

More than three years later, the Park Ridge building is home to only Locals 700 and 727 and Teamsters Joint Council 25, an umbrella group for union members in the Chicago area that Coli also leads. According to a commercial real-estate web site, a total of 31,316 square feet of office space remains unrented in the 95,600-square-foot building.

Before moving there, Local 700 had been at 1550 Mount Prospect Rd. in Des Plaines under a rent-to-own contract. The Teamsters had an option to buy the building for $2.15 million after renting the space for five years for more than $16,000 a month. If the union decided not to buy the building, it would see its rent double for the next 10 years.

That deal was signed by leaders of Teamster Local 726, which at that time represented the roughly 2,000 Teamsters union members who work for the city of Chicago. They moved in at the start of 2009. A few months later, the Teamsters international in Washington, D.C., placed Local 726 in trusteeship, citing "a pattern of financial malpractices" and removing the union's elected leaders.

Among the trustees appointed to oversee the local was Coli protégé Becky Strzechowski, who had worked for Coli's Local 727 for 22 years, starting as a clerk and rising to vice president and business manager.

Strzechowski told the union's Des Plaines landlords that the headquarters in Des Plaines "did not fit into Local 726's long-term plans," and the Teamsters stopped paying the rent and moved out, according to court records.

The Des Plaines property's investors soon stopped making payments on a $1.4 million bank loan they'd taken out after signing the deal with the Teamsters, and the bank that made the loan foreclosed on the building. The bank has intervened in the lawsuit against the Teamsters, staking its claim to whatever money the landlords' lawsuit against the union might bring.

Local 726 ended up being merged with Local 714 to create Local 700, one of the country's largest Teamsters locals.

Labor contracts that Local 726 and Local 714 had negotiated with City Hall, Cook County, the state of Illinois and dozens of other governments remained in force after the merger of the unions.

But lawyers for the new Local 700 said the union didn't have to abide by the terms of the lease for the Des Plaines property that Local 726 leaders signed.

So in 2010, the landlords sued. The case is still pending. In January, a judge rejected the Teamsters' bid to dismiss the lawsuit but dropped the joint council as defendants. The remaining defendants include the Teamsters international and its leader, James Hoffa.

Neither Coli — who was paid more than $338,000 last year as an official of three Teamsters groups — nor Strzechowski responded to requests for comment. Reached Friday, Coli's sister would say only, "I'm just the building manager."

Strzechowski has been president of Local 700 since August 2012. She was paid more than $284,000 by Local 700 in 2011, the most recent available public records show, and she made another $66,000 last year as a Teamsters international union vice president.

Teamsters groups contributed more than $105,000 to Emanuel's campaign fund in June, state campaign-finance records show.

And Local 700 gave $25,000 to the New York-based American Friends of the Yitzhak Rabin Center in 2011, Labor Department records show. That group honored Coli and Emanuel in June 2012 at a Chicago Hilton and Towers gala that collected more than $650,000 for the Rabin Center, a library and research center in Israel.

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